This time around, Joe "Jog" McCulloch presents his thoughts on Black Swan and his in depth look at Godard's Film Socialisme, while Tucker minces around with Edge of Darkness, Hunger, Quantum of Solace and the delightful Un Prophete.
[What follows is the slightly edited text of an email sent approximately twenty minutes after arriving home from a late showing], 2010
SUBJECT: Have either of you enjoyed the pleasure of the Black Swan?
Because it is hands-down the most ridiculous theatrical motion picture I've seen in a long time, to the point where I was whisked back to the days where this one friend and I would catch $5.00 early bird screenings of Battlefield Earth and Dungeons and Dragons: Starring Thora Birch and Dragons solely on the basis of their disrepute, except this thing is up for a shitload of lucrative trophies, particularly in the area of Natalie Portman adopting a baby voice so as to convey vulnerability and having her head digitally pasted onto things. The impact is so great that I'm compelled to talk about it into my email. Hereinafter are three moments which summarize the Black Swan experience:
1. When the leering foreign ballet director guy first says the words "Black Swan," there's a low DOOOM effect on the soundtrack.
2. I get the feeling this lady sitting behind me was holding herself back pretty heroically for the first fifteen minutes, but during the first of Natalie Portman's three masturbation/sex scenes she just started ROARING with laughter, particularly during the bit where she flops over onto her belly and points her butt pertly into the air like some straight Zalman King shit. I didn't exactly need the reminder, but there's no doubt now that Darren Aronofsky is totally a comics reader because this movie is distinctly superhero-like in teaming non-stop male-gazey boner framing with a noticeable absence of actual nudity or any sexual activity that doesn't inspire agony or paranoia in at least one participant/onlooker. Another big crowd-pleaser was the part where Natalie Portman is standing there staring at Mila Kunis rubbing a dude's package, because she represents sexy. Can't wait for "The Wolverine"!
3. Aronofsky -- seriously, no joke at all -- has his Directed By credit appear on screen at the end to a massive round of applause on the soundtrack, which he gallantly allows to continue onto succeeding creative contributors. Did Quentin Tarantino inspire this? Because fuck that, now I've decided David Foster Wallace was totally right about him. AND fatalism.
There a lot of other great aspects to the movie -- for instance, at one point it turns into a woman- in-peril creature feature with Winona Ryder as the monster -- but mostly I'm struck by how obviously it seems to think it's totally deconstructing Swan Lake itself into a cutting-edge statement about femininity in a ferociously sexualized, male-dominated world, although I do suspect from way in the back of my coal-filled head that presenting the central character as an infantalized, sexually paranoid basket case does little to engender thematic/socio-political sympathy when her lesser peers are written and shot as basically normal people and the abuse she suffers is framed in a manner so as to ultimately drive her into the divine arms of the Prince that is the Ecstasy of Art, doubly so when there's a tasty dribble of coyness spooned on about most of the exploitation actually occurring as a half-willing fantasy of hers, again for the purposes of bearing her manfully toward perfection.
In conclusion, Natalie Portman was a crazy lady and so crazy things happened in the movie, but it was good because art. FIN.
The Edge Of Darkness
Next Stop Green Lantern, 2010
This was originally a British mini-series, and you can tell, because lots of what happens in it is very, very condensed (like the plot) and the "bad guys die" ending is delivered with an embarrassed bleakness that Brits always have whenever they try to make gunplay movies. (Get Carter was a long time ago!) If it had been stretched out long enough so that the reasoning behind the evil (multiple murders to cover up radioactive pollution) meant anything, the tiresome business of sad men shooting mean functionaries might have been worked, but that didn't happen. Instead, you've got a bunch of people who probably still think the word dramaturgy is a turn-on trying to pretend that they're making something more important than a whiny version of Death Wish, while Mel Gibson wanders around trying to top every bad accent ever committed to film. Man that dude is such a racist I mean really
So Fucking French, 2009
It turns out the people who made this movie actually had some political reasons for doing so, but the only moral they seem to have cogently presented is "don't go to fucking prison", which is something most people probably know already, especially because subtitles. However! Their failing to incisively dissect the human cost of incarceration does not necessarily result in a product lacking in merits, it just means those merits are shifted over into a pile called great-crime-film, which Une Prophet totally is, especially in the parts where it gets fucking mean, which starts at the beginning and stops around the end. Beyond the stuff that one expects/checks off with this sort of film--great acting, mostly by unknown actors, a smart, concise script that expects the audience to pay attention, well chosen music, etc--Prophet is fucking gorgeous and weird, a film that mixes creepy horror and sideways religious fervor into its Godfather-indebted study in the building of empires. Smoke blowing from mouth to face, homoerotic hallucinations, the best floating-white-shit deaf ear shoot out Forrest Gump should have had, and more uncomfortable blade-play than anything in Ninja Scroll. Sharp like a razor.
Quantum of Solace
Let's Burn Down This Ugly Hotel, 2008
There aren't enough sequels that begin five minutes after their predessor ended, but that's not why Quantum of Solace is fucking grrrrreaat. (Even Noah Berlatsky agrees!) It's great because it's not about anything other than one character trait, and that character trait is "mean". James Bond is MEAN. He doesn't like women, sure, he treats them horribly, but he also checks his only male friend's pockets for cash seconds after the guy dies, whereupon which he throws his body in a dumpster. There are so many more examples of him being horrible, but that is the best of them. Such a horrible person! He's a nasty mother fucker, and while Solace keeps shoving the idea that all this nastiness is because he lost his favorite gal, there's no evidence beyond the script that the dude cares about anything other than putting the hurt on people as often as possible. The one doomed girl who gets the worst of it is picked up solely out of his own desire to teach her a lesson in his awesomeness, and while that results in her catching one of the worst deaths a Bond girl ever got (because gold paint on your body is way better than oil, just ask Marky Mark what choking that stuff down is like), it gives him more reasons to go kill people, as if he needed any, which he doesn't, because killing foreigners is his job already. The funny thing is--not ironic, but just funny--is that he seems aware that his behavior constantly results in him ending up standing with a frowny face over graves while the roses wilt in his hands, but he also seems aware that he is kind of incapable of fixing things without all that doom and gloom for motivation. Bring plenty of body bags? I guess? By the way, this movie is edited like its a rap video for a song on the Transformers soundtrack, so don't watch it with an epileptic kid.
Unleashed By Steve McQueen, 2008
The initial minutes of Hunger are pure endurance, but not the same kind that will be required later in the film, when oozing sores and human waste go on prominent display. No, these opening minutes are straight mental punishment: boring fucking people, samey fucking mornings, my ugly fucking hands. There's a bit of foreshadowing--he's checking his car for bombs, and he'll eventually catch death in an upfront fashion--but this is just shot after shot of the nothingness of life, the minutes in between. Eat your food. Lean on a wall. Wash your hands. Put on some clothes. Go to work.
The film never truly explodes out of that, the way you'd think a violent movie would, excepting during the introduction of a naked Michel Fassenbaum, getting rusty scissors shoved into the mass of shit, sweat and hair that clings to his scalp. But even when violence ramps those minutes up, it drops them back down again, and the actions in between return, with their hellishness laced in: what you do in a cell, what you paint in handfuls of your shit, the walls your food make, the piss you force through the door. Your naked flesh exposed, the violence that rains down in the trenches, the trenches that they'll make you crawl.
Hunger's a short movie. You meet some sideline characters, you meet Fassenbaum, you watch naked men get beaten and tortured, there's "the scene", and then you spend the rest of the movie watching Fassenbaum starve himself to death while his captors sit alongside him. Some of them gawk, some of them pray, some of them torture, but that's it, that's all there is to it: the politics are addressed by their effects, with some care taken to deliver a graphic portrayal of the way the other side handled themselves (shooting a man's brains all over his senile mother's absent mouth in the day room of an elderly care facility, another mother holding a grown man turned into the infant she once bore), but Hunger isn't likely to be classified alongside The Boxer or any of the other Daniel Day Lewis IRA movies in the near future. There's none of the pettiness of simplicity, there's no one to root for, there's just hands and skin and flesh. People shouldn't do this, but McQueen--writer, director, photographer--trusts that you knew that already, and he'd rather let the light play its way across the wall.
*The scene is what makes it, honestly, although the visuals deserve their praise. A seventeen minute, one-shot/one-take scene, where two men argue their way past one another regarding the use of suicide as an acceptable form of social protest, as a reasonable route toward political change. Superbly written, flawlessly performed, it's the kind of thing that points towards a direction film almost never takes: calmly drawing out complexity, hammer and nail. The shot that follows--a literal mopping up, this one of the puddles of piss that the inmates have sent flooding the halls--cements the fury that motivates the horrific sacrifice to come: we're gonna die on purpose, fat man. You're just gonna die with that mop in your hand.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 2010
Fittingly for a director who depicted himself in his prior feature, Notre musique (2004), as struck silent by the implications of digital cinema, Godard returns with an all-digital film, his first ever, that mimics the three episode structure of the prior work with a multivarious texture apt to address the realities of watching movies alone and remote. From its opening credits, accompanied by isolated beeps from the left side and the right -- testing both the directionality of the sound as well as the hearing of any viewer who might be listening in on headphones, and I mean ‘testing’ in the friendly checkup sense -- this seems to be the first of Godard’s features designed to be watched just as well on your laptop, perhaps better. The Socialism of the title is, per Godard’s indication, a matter of both politics and associations, though the title, Film Socialisme, firmly implies a Socialism of Film (rather than a Film about Socialism), and Godard makes every effort to draw attention to the cinema form.
Of course, I say this as an English speaker with a poor command of French; Godard’s film is primarily in French, and subtitled for English consumption at the director’s insistence in so- called “Navajo,” a script that boils down long sentences into groupings of five words or less, while ignoring other stretches of conversation entirely, like an easily distracted closed captioner attempting to perform their duties with Twitter hashtags. Godard claims not to have internet access, but collaborator Anne-Marie Miéville does, and anyway he seems perfectly aware of the jumble of perspectives that is cinematographic matter online; the excellent first segment of the film, Des choses comme ça, compliments the opening news footage barrage of Notre musique with an arrangement of video footage shot aboard a cruise ship, ranging in quality from extremely shiny, glossy, distinctly unreal splendor to scenes captured on what might be a cell phone.
The video often burps and glitches in a manner that suggests Godard’s own famed early use of jump cuts, and sometimes freezes at the end of scenes like YouTube videos; distortions render some images into colorful mosaics, while the sound -- again, headphones are highly recommended -- typically segregates disparate elements so that the left ear hears post-recorded dialogue while stock music dredged from an older movie hesitantly intones in the right ear, only to give way to a noise barrage of live-captured sea wind or degenerated club music recorded as roughly as possible at the scene.
But this is no utopia, as you’ve no doubt guessed. The most critical juxtaposition in the film occurs when a funny cat video suddenly appears on screen; the cats seem to be speaking in human words, and are then followed by a girl laying in bed and meowing at her laptop, which is playing the video. French, German and several other languages are spoken onboard the ship, forcing almost any viewer to attempt to resort to the potential commonality of English, but it is Navajo, and thereby as elusive and misleading as early American relations with the natives (see again the Indian ghosts wandering Notre musique). In this way, the content of the film’s dialogue (the “writing,” as it is) sinks back into line with montage, mise-en-scène; it has naturally been suggested that if we knew what Godard’s images were saying, we would dismiss them as boring or vapid or ugly, but then I suspect as rip-worthy a digital affair as this is perfectly aware that the individual viewer can download fuller subtitles online, if they want. The provocation -- hardly new, but very well-put -- is that perspectives are mutable, and cinema, perhaps dead in Godard’s view, is now also as boundless from its inexplicability as communication itself.
Notre musique structured its three parts as epic poetry: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Film Socialisme, has been identified by Godard as lateral travel, hence the mass of humanity aboard a ship, but I see it as another ascension. From the churn of humanity massed on an artificial consumer civilization, Godard pulls back into his second segment, a more typical narrative film shot mainly in the hi-def glossy manner, concerning a girl staging a protest at her parents’ gas station while her mother runs for public office. The “Navajo” conceit becomes enervating here, which may be part of the point, though there is a fine entry in the annals of cinema as boys taking pictures of girls -- i.e. Godard shooting a sweat-glistened newswoman in cargo pants and a bikini top shooting the girl as she vamps in a stripy dress and sunglasses -- and an instantly striking political summary in the form of a little boy conducting an off-screen orchestra in a hammer & sickle t-shirt and feeling his mother’s body as if blind and painting a portrait that temporary blasts the film’s colors into over-saturated heat and chases people away with sticks. This brand of people-as-politics is distanced from the improvised mess of the prior segment, and itself distanced from the third and final bit, revisiting Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma essay project as a study of ancient lands. From the swirl of the mass to the remove of narrative to the self-evident authorial address of narration over image - this is the cinema Godard has lived, and now, streaming before you know it, it is all aligned before the viewer.
-Joe McCulloch & Tucker Stone, 2011